Smile Politely

A “can” half empty

Illinois’ only played one good half of football Saturday. It’s progress. 

Forget the optimism versus pessimism debate for a moment, and let’s all agree that for Illini football fans, the glass was half empty. Or, if you prefer, the can was half-empty. More on that later.

Illinois actually looked pretty competent in the first half of the game, and went into the half tied 7–7.

Nathan Scheelhaase looked nimble and ran the ball well off the option reads. This was something that had been wholly absent in the last few weeks. Mr. Scheelhaase had been battling an ankle injury, so perhaps the coaches were trying to let him heal, or maybe he wasn’t up to the running. But this week he was, and did an admirable job.

But it wasn’t quite there yet. The rushing was overall sorely lacking, as the second place runner (behind Scheelhaase), Josh Ferguson, had a total of 11 net yards on 7 carries. The lack of a run threat badly hampered the offensive schemes, and it caught up with Illinois eventually. Even at the end of the third quarter the game was far from over, as Illinois trailed 10–7, but the tide was turning. The defensive secondary badly missed having Suppo Sanni, as he missed another game with a shoulder injury. When Wisconsin got the passes flowing, they came in buckets. Illinois’ special teams performed an uncanny impression of last year’s struggles.

Let’s be frank here. This was a big step forward from the last two weeks. They’re not there yet, but they’re at least moving in the right direction. There’s a long way to go, and next week, playing Michigan at Ann Arbor is going to be another huge challenge. But at least they’re making steps in the right direction, no longer moving backward. The can is half empty, but at least it’s not wholly empty.

When I say the “can” is half empty, I’m referring specifically to a can of Skoal Classic Long Cut chewing tobacco. I’m sure that most of you decided to watch Illinois take on Wisconsin on TV rather than make the trip to Madison. Before kickoff, as the announcers were talking about Tim Beckman’s first season, the cameras cut to a live shot of him standing on the sidelines just as he reached into his pocket, took out a can of chew, and put a dip into his lip.

I’m sure a lot of people thought “is that allowed?” Turns out it’s not. The NCAA prohibits the use of tobacco products for student athletes, refs, and coaches during games and practices. The issue has come up before: Ohio State self-reported that an assistant coach had been chewing tobacco on the sidelines last year. Well, “self-reported” might be misleading, since, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, it was caught first by a Columbus health teacher, which is just too perfect for words. It’s a secondary violation.

If you’re like me, you found this whole thing rather hilarious. I like Tim Beckman, mostly because he seems like a straight-shooter. I appreciate his plainspoken directness. He’s a throwback of a coach, in that he lacks the media-friendly polish that has started to pervade the college coaching ranks. Tim Beckman has a lot of what I like in college football more generally, namely some rough edges, some harmless weirdness, and a whole lot of acknowledgement that this is an incredibly violent game, not a “product” or a “brand.” So when he pulled out that brown can of Skoal (classic unflavored chew, not Wintergreen: flavored tobacco, like drinking Boone’s Farm, is for high school kids), the whole thing seemed just about right, in that it’s at least arguable that the whole enterprise is wrong, or semi-wrong. Like college football.

“It’s bad for you, and it sends the wrong message to the kids,” the scolds say. In the third quarter, an ambulance drove out onto the field, and it wasn’t to check Tim Beckman for lip cancer. Terry Hawthorne lay motionless on the field after a helmet-to-helmet hit. If you were like me, you were fixated on the TV, staring at the bottom of his cleats, the troubling lack of any movement in his feet. Even after giving a wan thumbs-up as he was being loaded onto a backboard, there remained a genuine concern: would that man ever walk again? Luckily the CT scan was negative, and he was able to take the team flight back to Champaign.

So what does this have to do with Tim Beckman’s dip? Well, Terry Hawthorne is a grown man. He decided to play college football, something that carries with it a not insignificant risk of serious, even life-threatening, health consequences. I can’t speak for exactly what his personal reasons for doing so are, but he’s an adult; he’s made a conscious decision to play football despite the risks, and I respect his right to make that choice. Respecting the autonomy of others means respecting their right to make decisions that you wouldn’t make for yourself. So Tim Beckman wants to chew on the sidelines, despite the fact that it’s bad for his health. The NCAA, the scolds, all of us, feign outrage, pretend to care about “the kids.”

Terry Hawthorne is carted off the field on a stretcher, we all hold our breath, clap for the thumbs-up. Then we go back to watching the game, but first we pause the TV to go get another beer. That last one is almost empty.

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